September 8, 2018 – Just as thousands of Bourbon lovers descend on Kentucky for the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival this coming week, workers at one of the Commonwealth’s iconic whiskey distilleries have gone on strike. 53 workers at the Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg and the Four Roses maturation and bottling campus in Cox’s Creek walked off the job Friday afternoon after rejecting the company’s final contract offer.

The workers are represented by two locals of the United Food and Commercial Workers and the SEIU National Conference of Firemen & Oilers. UFCW Local 10D represents operations and maintenance workers in Lawrenceburg, while Local 23D represents operations and maintenance workers at the Cox’s Creek site near Bardstown. The SEIU/NCFO represents five Lawrenceburg workers who operate the distillery’s boiler and water treatment systems. According to Local 10D President Jeff Royalty, 51 of the 53 workers voted to reject the contract offer and go on strike immediately.

“I will be the first to say we made some headway…we found some common ground on a lot of issues, but as I tell people, we got real close but just not quite there,” Royalty told WhiskyCast in a telephone interview from the picket line in Lawrenceburg Saturday. Royalty emphasized that the dispute was not over wages, but centered on the desire of Four Roses owner Kirin Holdings to implement a two-tier benefit structure for new employees with changes to  sick leave and seniority rights. Royalty said the benefit changes would affect policies that have been part of the contract for the last 30 years, and rejected the “two-tier” structure out of hand. The dispute is also the subject of a union complaint to the National Labor Relations Board filed August 24.

The Four Roses shop at on the Spalding Hall lawn during the 2012 Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown, Kentucky. File photo ©2018, Mark Gillespie/CaskStrength Media.

Four Roses is one of the distilleries that traditionally has an exhibit and gift shop at the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown. 

Four Roses Chief Operating Officer and Director of Distillery Operations Ryan Ashley declined to comment on the strike, but in an email to WhiskyCast, said “we certainly aim to resolve this amicably and swiftly.” The strike will not affect production at the Kirin Holdings-owned distillery, which has been idled temporarily while a $55 million expansion project is in its final stages. Work on that project is expected to continue despite the labor action. In addition, bottling operations will continue at Cox’s Creek, where the bottling hall staff is not unionized.

Four Roses is scheduled to host its annual “Let’s Talk Bourbon” event with Master Distiller Brent Elliott this Friday at the distillery in Lawrenceburg as part of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. Tickets for that event sold out almost as soon as they went on sale. In addition, the Four Roses 130th Anniversary Limited Edition Small Batch Bourbon is scheduled to go on sale Saturday in the distillery’s shops at both facilities. Four Roses also takes part in many of the Bourbon Festival’s other showcase events during the Festival, and union members make up the distillery’s team in the festival’s World Championship Bourbon Barrel Relay. It is not known whether Four Roses will field a team if the strike lasts through Saturday’s event.

In his email, Ashley said the strike will not affect the distillery’s plans for the coming week.

“We will forge on and entertain like any other year. While it’s unfortunate that our employees are striking (particularly this week) we will absolutely welcome all guests and continue to provide the same top notch experience.”

The employees that staff the visitors center in Lawrenceburg and shop in Cox’s Creek are not represented by unions, and both facilities will remain open during the strike.

The UFCW’s Royalty denied any timing between the strike vote and the start of the Bourbon Festival, but admits it “blows his mind” that management “wasn’t willing to work this out with me.” ”

“For all 53 of us, nothing would make us any more happy than to get our beautiful facility which we just spent $55 million dollars on up and running and show it off to people, show ’em the proud nature of what we do, and it kind of amazes me that they’re not at least willing to sit down and work with me on this,” Royalty said. He pledged that if the strike continues through the official start of Bourbon Festival events on Wednesday, union members will make their voices heard – but he also has his negotiating team ready to meet on an hour’s notice if the company wants to talk.

Listen to Mark Gillespie’s interview with UFCW Local 10D President Jeff Royalty:

 

“Whatever direction that this ends up going in…if we’re on strike, you will see the UFCW in full force handing out handbills, doing things of that nature. On the flip side of that, I hope we’re back up and running, and you’ll see the UFCW out there supporting our distillery and all of the distilleries around…so we’ll be there either way.”

The strike is the first against a Kentucky distillery since UFCW members walked off the job at the Jim Beam Distillery in Clermont in October of 2016. The week-long strike ended when union members accepted a new contract that included wage increases and limits on overtime.

This story will be updated with additional information as necessary.

Editor’s note: This story was edited to remove mention of a two-tier wage structure for new employees. The company indicated on September 17  that their last contract offer only proposed benefits changes for new hires. 

Links: Four Roses | United Food & Commercial Workers | National Conference of Firemen & Oilers | Kentucky Bourbon Festival